One year ago, Shreya Khullar was the newly inaugurated Iowa Student Poet Ambassador.
Now, she’s a soon-to-be graduate of Iowa City West High School who will be moving to the East Coast to attend Columbia University this fall.
From April 2021 to April 2022, Khullar carried the title of Iowa Student Poet Ambassador.
Her final act of service was to pass the position to the state’s second student poet ambassador, Johnnie Each of Cedar Rapids, in Des Moines at an inauguration ceremony last month.
“The program was forming with me as I was forming as a poet,” Khullar told the Press-Citizen as she reflected on her tenure. “In that way, it was really special to me and I had to let it go.”
The mission of the Iowa Student Poet Ambassador is to celebrate a “talented student poet” who will support the voices “of young people in Iowa, and raise awareness of the literary arts.”
Khullar said that involved helping people understand how accessible poetry is and that it is something students can pursue.
Jan Warren is the assistant director for student services at the University of Iowa’s Belin-Blank Center and coordinator of the Iowa Student Poet Ambassador program.
She explained that the team behind the student poet ambassadorship required Khullar to participate in four events, with others being optional to ensure Khullar could focus on her academics.
Khullar accepted every opportunity she was offered, Warren said.
As student poet ambassador, Khullar participated in the All Iowa Reads program, which selects a book for three different age categories and provides discussion questions and author visits to promote unity through learning opportunities.
Khullar read all the books across all age groups and joined authors for virtual events, connecting with students and adults across Iowa to talk further about literature, Warren said.
The former poet ambassador participated in the Englert Theatre’s Writers of Color Reading Series, which transitioned into a podcast.
Khullar joined Iowa Public Radio’s Charity Nebbe and two writers for a conversation about Elizabeth Acevedo’s “Clap When You Land,” and presented a workshop with Iowa Poet Laureate Debra Marquart at the Iowa City Book Festival.
Speaking on Iowa Public Radio was a particularly memorable experience for Khullar, who found herself surrounded by other people who loved reading and could discuss a piece of work at length.
“We’ve been just so darn fortunate to have Shreya as our inaugural Iowa Student Poet Ambassador. We could not have asked for anyone better,” Warren said. “We just couldn’t.”
Khullar’s approach to poetry is rather organic, one that emerges naturally as opposed to using a process that results in a poem.
In working with Marquart for events like the Iowa City Book Festival, Khullar found it interesting to learn how Marquart crafts her poems and observed how her writing process differs from Marquart’s.
So did Marquart.
Marquart called Khullar’s perspective “refreshing” and saw how frequently Khullar wrote and would read new work.
“It takes me a long time to write a poem. Like I have an experience and then I think about it for a couple of years and then I write about it,” she said. “I thought that her process of her is different, that she’s really being responsive to the moment in her writing of her.”
What the role of the Iowa Student Poet Ambassador gave Shreya Khullar
Some of Khullar’s latest work explores change, especially prevalent as the high schooler prepares for college.
“There was just a lot of learning how to do things and branching away from the security blanket of home and all of that and moving out to take on new opportunities in life, which is very exciting, but also quite nerve-racking,” she said.
At Columbia, Khullar plans to continue writing poetry and studying other aspects of the literary arts, including writing more fiction.
The eldest of three siblings, she’ll be leaving her home for the first time.
Khullar’s journey into poetry began when she started high school. The speed at which she transitioned into being named the inaugural student poet ambassador for Iowa is “crazy,” she said.
The student ambassadorship has not only been an opportunity for Khullar to pursue poetry, it’s given her confidence to “believe in my own voice.”
“What I wanted to do (in) my position is to use it to hopefully inspire others to continue writing,” she said. “I definitely think I would have kept writing, but I think the position has given me a special sense of competence and assurance that this is something that is worthwhile and pursuable.”
Marquart said, generally, people in honorary positions, like a poet laureate, are older with established careers.
It’s what makes the role of a student poet ambassador unique, and valuable, she said.
“Any opportunity we can have to highlight and hold up and amplify the voice of the young people in our country who are important stakeholders in the future is important,” Marquart said.
‘I’m just really excited to see how the program can grow’: Organizers seek new partners
As poet ambassador, Khullar said she wanted to make sure that she gave back in the same way opportunities and lessons were given to her.
One thing she hopes could happen in the program is more collaboration between youth across America in similar roles as the student poet ambassador.
Still, Khullar said she is “fulfilled” with how the position went, and wished she could have participated in even more events.
“I’m just really excited to see how the program can grow when there’s not a global pandemic,” she said.
Warren said one of the things the team for the ambassadorship is continuing to look for is new partners to expand the program and make it more accessible for students.
Though the Iowa Student Poet Ambassador is unpaid, Khullar was gifted a $1,500 scholarship toward Columbia University that Warren said came from some of the partnering nonprofit organizations, Marquart and former poet laureate Mary Swander.
“I honestly believe that our next poet ambassador will also be amazing, but part of that is due to the groundwork that Shreya has laid,” Warren said.
Paris Barraza covers entertainment, lifestyle and arts at the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Reach her from her at PBarraza@press-citizen.com or (319) 519-9731. Follow her on Twitter @ParisBarraza.